Positron emission imaging of head and neck cancer, including thyroid carcinoma

Semin Nucl Med. 2004 Jul;34(3):180-97. doi: 10.1053/j.semnuclmed.2004.03.004.


Most positron emission tomography (PET) imaging studies in head and neck cancer are performed using the radiotracer 18-fluorodeoxyglucose ((18)FDG). PET with FDG has become a standard clinical imaging modality in patients with head and neck cancer. It contributes valuable information in localizing a primary tumor in patients with neck nodal metastases from an unknown primary, in the staging of primary head and neck cancer, and in the detection of recurrent disease. In addition, FDG-PET provides independent prognostic information in patients with newly diagnosed and recurrent head and neck cancer. PET/CT improves lesion localization and accuracy of FDG-PET and is strongly recommended in patients with head and neck cancer. After thyroidectomy, FDG-PET has proven useful in patients with clinical or serological evidence of recurrent or metastatic thyroid carcinoma but negative whole body iodine scan. PET shows metastatic disease in up to 90% of these patients, thereby providing a rational basis for further studies and therapy. In patients with medullary thyroid cancer with elevated calcitonin levels following thyroidectomy, FDG-PET has a sensitivity of 70-75% for localizing metastatic disease. Occasionally incidental intense FDG uptake is observed in the thyroid gland on whole body PET studies performed for other indications. Although diffuse FDG uptake usually indicates thyroiditis, focal uptake has been related to thyroid cancer in 25-50% of cases and should therefore be evaluated further if a proven malignancy would cause a change in patient management.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Fluorodeoxyglucose F18*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / secondary*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / therapy
  • Humans
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / diagnostic imaging*
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / secondary*
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / therapy
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / diagnostic imaging*
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / therapy
  • Prognosis
  • Radiography
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Subtraction Technique
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / secondary
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / therapy
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed / methods*


  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Fluorodeoxyglucose F18